THE COAL CRISIS.
WISEACRES predicted that the Peace would be in some respects more difficult than the war. If the public did not recognize what lay behind the prophecy, they at all events understood in a most dramatic and startling way when the Government announced that the price of coal was to be raised six shillings a ton. Since that moment coal has figured in every public and private conversation. The people of this country are slow to appreciate the ten- dency and meaning of events, but when they sit up and rub their eyes and tell themselves that it is time to awake they generally not only appreciate the situation with accuracy but deal with it very practically. We earnestly trust that this may happen according to our national manner once again, for it would be impossible to imagine a more critical time than that which the British industrial world is passing through now. In some ways it reminds us of those nightmarish. days when we used to set the table of the sinkings of our merchant fleet against the table of new construction in British ship- yards. It was a delicate and frequently a depressing balance, and for many months it seemed that we were as likely to come out on the wrong side as on the right. The present crisis is not accompanied by a cruel slaughter of human lives, but for the future of Great Britain it is not less grave. When all the husks which enclose the seed of the matter have been scattered, and when all the assertions of the leaders of industry, of the leaders of Labour, and of politicians have been considered, only one issue, and a very simple issue, remains. It is whether the nation will choose a scheme for the coal industry which will ensure the highest possible output at a price which will allow industry to thrive, or whether it will choose a scheme which yields a low output and even then provides coal at a price which will cause industry to wither away. Upon the rightness of the choice depend the comfort and prosperity of every family in the land, rich or poor, educated or ignorant. Upon it also depend the wages-which all the working people of the land will earn. The price of every purchasable commodity is regulated by the plentifulness and the reasonable cost of coal. Wages might nominally soar to the skies and reach a figure undreamt of even by the Labour leaders of to-day, and yet if the cost of commodities rose to an even higher price, for all practical purposes wages would have been falling all the time. We cannot believe that the nation, with whom the decision ultimately rests, will decide wrongly or- foolishly, but we have to admit that the matter is in doubt, and that the times are extremely anxious.
When the six shillings increase was announced, the first impulse of the representatives of Labour was to say that the Government were intriguing as usual, and that they had stage-managed the announcement in order to make it immediately precede two by-elections, and also in order to set the whole community of coal-users against the miners. Appearances to a certain extent were no doubt against the Government, who seem to have some native instinct for doing the right thing in the wrong way, or for contriving that somehow or other a case shall be given to their opponents. But for our part, after examining all the facts, we have come to the conclusion that Sir Auckland Geddes made a perfectly wise and truthful statement when he put six shillings on the price of coal. The rise of six shillings was indeed dictated by circumstances and not by the Government at all. All Sir Auckland Geddes did in his able speech was to explain and justify the amount. Further, it seems to us incontrovertible that he was wise to tell the public exactly what their coal is costing them. This is far too important a matter for pretence and disguise. So long as the Government were subsidizing the coal industry, the true price of coal was hidden from the nation. The result of this was naturally that very few people knew, and a great many people did not care, what was happening as regards the control of the mines. People were no more concerned with the rising cost of production than the average tenant of a flat who pays his rates mixed up with his rent is concerned with the carelessness or thriftlessness of a Municipal Authority. As we believe, the miners objected to the Government announcement merely in order to shift the odium from themselves. For why, after all, should they have objected ? Sir Auckland Geddes presented them with a valuable argument, if they had not been too frightened or too much annoyed to use it rightly. They might easily have said : " Look at this huge rise in the price of coal which threatens to paralyse industry. This is the sort of thing that is bound to happen under the present system of private control. Never was there such a conclusive argument that the whole system must be swept away. Give us nationalization and all will be well ! " There must have been some reason why the miners refrained from using that argument for all it was worth. The reason was, as we have said—and it is a satisfaction to be able to say it—that the miners were frightened. They enjoyed the situation so long as the State subsidies threw dust in the eyes of the public ; but directly the Government said in effect : " This useless camouflage must cease. Every ton of coal in the country must be labelled with its exact price," the leaders of the miners had a vision of the wrath of their fellow-workers. They saw that the moment for disillusionment had come. They pictured to themselves millions of workmen who knew that their wages could not rise further, or would be reduced, or who were under sentence of unemployment, reviling the miners because the tremendous rise in the cost of coal was paralysing the factories. They pictured also the housewife who buys her coal by the sack—when she is lucky enough to get so much—shaking her fist at the meddlers who had upset her whole domestic budget by disastrously raising against her the price of this primary element of life. The time had indeed come for the truth to be told if the Government were not to pass from folly into insanity. The .extra six shillings has not been put on by Sir Auckland Geddes, but by the force of circum- stances, or, in other words, by the results of a long period of compliance and hesitation on the part of the Govern- ment, and of an equally long period of -threatening and interfering on the part of Mr. Smillie.
It would be wrong to put the whole,blame on the miners, and Sir Auckland Geddes himself (leaving out the Govern- ;ment's share of the blame) was careful to point out that the shortage in output was partly due to transport diffi- culties which were the consequence of the war. Let us try to look into the various degrees of blame, and first let us take the case of the Government. About six weeks ago Sir Auckland Geddes, in explaining increased wages and shorter working hours in the mines, estimated that they would cause .a deficit of 146,600,000. He also estimated that an increase of 4s. 6d. per ton in the price of coal would cover this deficit. Only six week; later he has to announce that a mistake was made, and that the increase in the price of coal must be 1s. 6d. a ton more. Can one wonder that -critics of the Government rush to suggest intrigue, or accuse the Government of dressing up political strategy as industrial necessity ? The Government have , also behaved very unwisely in making it possible for it to be said that they have committed them- selves to various policies, including nationalization. For example, Mr. Bonar Law said that he accepted the Sankey Report " in the spirit and the letter." That -might be taken to mean that Mr. Boner Law accepts nationahzation on behalf of the Government. Yet other statements by Ministers suggest that nationalization has by no means been accepted ; nor is there any reason why it should be. The matter is far too grave for the Government to act on the old plan of buying immunity from immediate trouble by giving way to that group which is making most noise at the moment. If the shortage of output continues, together with the present high price of coal, our manu- facturers will hardly be able to compete with any country ; and, worse than that, there will be an end to the export of coal, which was the means by which we used largely to regulate foreign exchanges, and make profitable the voyages of our merchant ships when they sailed abroad to bring home cargoes of food, raw material, and manufactured goods. There are really four Reports before the Govern- ment. There are Sir John Sankey's Report, in favour of nationalization ; Mr. Smillie's, in favour of syndicalization ; Sir Arthur Duckham's, in favour of concentrating the industry under Boards of private directors ; and the Report of the coal-owners, in favour of nationalization of royalties and profit-sharing, but otherwise continuing the industry on its present basis. It is a misfortune that people talk of nationalization when they mean no more than that the royalties or minerals should be owned by the State. In our opinion, that kind of nationalization is required. The present owners, who have the fullest legal right to their property, should be bought out with fair compensation. But what the extremists mean by nationalization is that the State should not only own but manage the whole industry. In our view, that policy means disaster, and we say it without hesitation on the evidence which was laid before the Coal Commission. We confess that before we read that evidence we were open to conviction either way. Surely, in the present chaos of thought and the conflicting issues caused by the very word " nationalization," the Government could do far more than they have yet done to keep political thinking on the right lines. No one wants them to make up their minds in a hurry ; obviously they must wait till they see what comes of the present negotiations with the miners. But they could do a great deal to ensure that when the next move comes it shall not be possible once more for the most necessary act or decision to be hailed as black Maohiavellism. They do not look far enough ahead or they do not think things out carefully enough in the Cabinet. Lord Cromer used to say that something that was attributed to a Government as a calculated plot or a piece of deliberate disingenuousness was generally the result of sheer care- lessness or absence of thought. We have little doubt that it is so in the present case.
Now as regards the degree of blame to be put upon the miners. Mr. Smillie undoubtedly gave the nation to under- stand, after the first Sankey Report, that the output would be improved. It has not been improved. It has fallen lower than ever. From the point of view of the mass of miners, the explanation is much more simple than people think. Mr. Smillie himself may hatch high schemes of syndicalization, but the mass of the miners understand little about such things, and the fall in the output is due to the fact that their needs are met by a certain amount of money ; and if they can make that certain amount by working on fewer days, and working for fewer hours even on those fewer days, they will not trouble to do any more work. Not being thrifty, they do not care to amass money in order to invest it ; and not having an art of life, as more highly educated people understand it, they have little idea of improving their social surroundings by their own efforts or expenditure. There are exceptions, of course, but this is unfortunately true of the mass. Some people fly off with the notion that the fall in the output is the result of entirely new political or industrial ambition. As a matter of fact, the output per man has been steadily falling for many years. In 1887 it was 299 tons per man when the annual wages paid for that output were only £52. In 1908 the output had fallen gradually to 248 tons per man and the annual wages were then £91. In 1914, the year in which the war began, the output was 243 tons per man and the wage cost was £99. Last year the output per man was only 224 tons and the wages per man had risen to 4197. We take these figures from a pamphlet entitled How Miners at Home were Led during the War. The pamphlet also states that before the war the American mines turned out 650 tons per man per annum. This enormous discrepancy between the British and the American output is of course chiefly accounted for by the much greater use of mechanical power in America. The miners will do well to remember that even though the Government may not really have tried to set public opinion against them, public opinion may very easily turn against them of its own accord, and probably has already begun to do so. The miners, if they wish to do the best for them- selves, as of course they do, should reflect that the man who has the reputation of playing a lone hand is in a very difficult position. Miners as a class are not popular. Their war record of intermittently threatening strikes and demand- ing more wages at short notice when the nation knew that it could not afford to allow work to cease for an instant is not forgotten. Above all, the miners' leaders would be wise not to try to carry their case by using arguments which men in all other trades know to be unreal. For instance, Mr. Smillie declared on Tuesday that the miners would not try to work harder in order to line the pockets of capitalists. But, as every one knows, the profit of the mine-owners is now a fixed amount, limited to 1s. 2d. per ton. There is no question of " profiteering " now, no possibility of it. Such are the issues before the nation. The nation, and only the nation—that is to say, the electoral majority—. must decide. Such a decision will be accepted by all true democrats, whether it be for State management or, as we hope, against it. What the majority will not tolerate when they fully wake to the facts is that in this matter of life and death a clique should dictate to them.